Gentle giant or provoker? Defendant called both -
Published Wednesday, April 18, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:24 am
Gentle giant or provoker? Defendant called both

A softspoken, gentle giant.

A chaos creator and police provoker.

Those two images of Robert Wagner emerged Tuesday in the second day of his trial on charges that he assaulted one police officer before being gang tackled by several outside Creighton University Medical Center.

And here's the interesting part: They both came from the same source — Omaha police.

Several police officers who went to the Creighton hospital — where Wagner was visiting his mortally wounded cousin on May 29 — gave competing views of Wagner's behavior before he was pounced on by police outside the hospital.

Under prosecutors' direction, testimony turned away from the hospital surveillance video of the officers punching, kicking and shocking Wagner with a Taser, behavior that resulted in the firing of two officers.

It instead focused on Wagner's behavior before, prosecutors say, he assaulted Officer Scott Zymball. If convicted, Wagner would face up to five years of probation or five years in prison.

The testimony showed just how divergent witness accounts can be, even among trained police officers.

Several officers disagreed on how much Wagner, 36, was mouthing off before the melee — and how much he was fighting during it. One even disagreed with whether Wagner's fist hit Zymball's head — the basis for the assault charge.

Officer Joshua Kelley said he saw Wagner's forearm, not his fist, hit Zymball near the side of his head. Four other officers said it was his fist.

All described near chaos at the hospital.

The lead officer at the hospital, Billie Jo Ceglar, testified that Wagner was hostile as he paced the lobby of the emergency room where he was visiting his dying cousin, Jimmy Levering.

Wagner and several family members were under the mistaken belief that police had shot and killed Levering, a gang member, outside a north Omaha club, Ceglar said.

“I asked them who would want to hurt Mr. Levering, and they said, ‘Everyone,' ” Ceglar said. “And I asked them who might have shot him, and they said, ‘The police.' ”

Ceglar testified that Wagner's behavior compounded the chaos.

“Mr. Wagner was pacing up and down that hallway,” Ceglar said. “He was angry and he was making comments about killing police, killing cops and that we were a bunch of ‘cop killers.' ”

Wagner's attorney, Glenn Shapiro, questioned how Wagner could have gotten away with repeatedly threatening officers without being charged with making terroristic threats.

Another Omaha police officer, Danielle Cloudt, testified that she has known Wagner for years.

She said she knew him as a “gentle giant” with a calm demeanor. She said she never heard Wagner make comments about killing cops that night.

Officer Ruben Soto also said he hadn't heard Wagner make any “kill the cops” comments. However, he and Officer Jodi Sautter described odd encounters with him.

The two officers said Wagner came up to them and stared at their name plates and/or their guns.

“He said, ‘I know you,' ” Soto said. “I said, ‘I don't know you at all.' Then he kind of sized me up. I moved away from the wall. If something was going to happen, I didn't want a wall behind me.”

Ceglar said Wagner became disgusted when he saw officers let Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray enter a hospital back room where the family had gathered. Gray works in gang intervention and sometimes visits hospitals after gang members are shot.

After Wagner voiced his displeasure, Ceglar and Sautter ordered him out of the hospital.

Wagner left through the emergency room doors, then turned back toward officers. Ceglar said Zymball went to arrest Wagner for failing to disperse.

At that point, several officers said they saw Wagner recoil, ball up his fist and hit Zymball in the back of the head.

“Like a big haymaker,” Officer Matt Keenan said.

Several times, Shapiro questioned how the officers saw any strike, noting that it's not on a surveillance video.

“You don't see the actual hit (on the video),” Ceglar said. “The jerking away of his arm and the swinging motion is what you see. And you see his hair fly in the air.”

Sautter went a step further. She said Wagner continued to resist. “His legs are kicking, his arms are swinging.”

Even while he was on the ground, Sautter said: “His arms continued to flail and so did his legs.”

Shapiro suggested no such struggling is apparent on the video — or any punch by Wagner. He noted that it does show Kelley pointing up at the video camera and alerting his fellow officers.

“Is it fair to say the other officers kind of scatter at that point?” Shapiro asked.

“Yeah, you could say that,” Kelley said, drawing laughs from Wagner's courtroom supporters.

Shapiro also questioned whether Sautter had any ulterior motive in her testimony — something she denies. Sautter is the sister, and one-time police partner, of Jackie Dolinsky, who was fired along with Aaron Pennington for their actions after Wagner was gang-tackled.

Both Dolinsky and Pennington are appealing their terminations. Prosecutor Jim Masteller asked Sautter if she was testifying in the hope that a Wagner conviction would help her sister get her job back.

“I don't think it has any bearing,” Sautter said.

Contact the writer:

Contact the writer: Todd Cooper    |   402-444-1275

Todd covers courts and legal issues for The World-Herald.

Intoxicated man with pellet gun climbs billboard's scaffold; is arrested
Last day of 2014 Legislature: Praise, passage of a last few bills and more on mountain lions
'The war is not over,' Chambers says, but legislative session about is
A recap of what got done — and what didn't — in the 2014 legislative session
PAC funded by Senate candidate Ben Sasse's great-uncle releases Shane Osborn attack ad
Teen killed at Gallagher Park was shot in head as he sat in SUV, friend who was wounded says
When judge asks, Nikko Jenkins says ‘I killed them’
New UNO center strengthens ties between campus, community
Threat found in Millard West bathroom deemed 'not credible'
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
Nebrasks health officials to advertise jobs via drive-thru
Coral Walker named Omaha police officer of the year
Sarah Palin, Mike Lee coming to Nebraska for Ben Sasse rally
Prescription drug drop-off is April 26
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Rather than doing $250K in repairs, owner who lives in lot behind 94-year-old house in Dundee razes it
NB 30th Street lane closed
State Patrol, Omaha police conduct vehicle inspections
Bernie Kanger formally promoted to Omaha fire chief
U.S. House incumbents have deeper pockets than their challengers
Nancy's Almanac, April 17, 2014: Trees save money
Ex-Iowan behind landmark free speech case recounts story in Bellevue
Gov. Heineman signs water bill; sponsor calls it 'landmark legislation'
Senate candidate Shane Osborn to include anti-tax activist Norquist in telephone town hall
Kelly: New $24M UNO center embodies spirit of newlywed crash victim
< >
Kelly: Creighton's McDermotts put good faces on an Omaha tradition
A comical roast Wednesday night in Omaha brought fans of Creighton basketball laughter by the bucketful. This time it was McJokes, not McBuckets, that entertained the Bluejay crowd.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Breaking Brad: How many MECA board members can we put in a luxury suite?
As a stunt at the Blue Man Group show, MECA board members are going to see how many people they can stuff into one luxury suite.
Kelly: New $24M UNO center embodies spirit of newlywed crash victim
Jessica Lutton Bedient was killed by a drunken driver at age 26 in 2010. Thursday, the widowed husband and other family members will gather with others at the University of Nebraska at Omaha to dedicate a permanent memorial to Jessica.
Breaking Brad: How much would you pay for a corn dog?
The Arizona Diamondbacks have a new concession item: a $25 corn dog. For that kind of money, it should be stuffed with Bitcoin.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »